Stepping up to the altar as a nastier, even more foul-mouthed version of “Bridesmaids,” “Bachelorette” is a shrill, wedding-themed snipefest that seems determined to elevate backstabbing bitchery to the level of art. It doesn’t quite get there. After a promisingly funny first half, this tale of three coke-snorting gal-pals trying not to screw up their friend’s nuptials all but drowns in its own catty cynicism, turning as stingy with emotion and insight as it is with real laughs. A primo cast takes the material as far as it will go, which could be enough where distaff and gay-male auds are concerned.
In retooling her 2010 stage satire, “The Bachelorette,” Leslye Headland has retained much of the play’s scalding dialogue and generally vituperative vibe. Yet in forcing the piece to function, at least initially, as a traditional mainstream comedy, Headland ill prepares the viewer for a midway shift into more introspective territory, making for a tonally uncertain picture too pleased with its characters’ snarky self-absorption.
It begins nicely, or nastily rather, as type-A blonde overachiever Regan (Kirsten Dunst) reacts with barely concealed horror to the news that plain, plus-sized Becky (Rebel Wilson) will be the first of their high-school inner circle to tie the knot — and to one of the wealthiest men in New York. Equally taken aback are moody, sardonic Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and shallow, model-gorgeous Katie (Isla Fisher), who like Regan have clearly stayed friends with trusting, sweet-natured “Pig Face” all these years mainly because she helps them to feel better about themselves.
Enlisted for bridesmaid duty, the three do themselves proud by accidentally ripping an enormous gash in Becky’s poncho-like wedding gown on the eve of the ceremony. Somehow their frantic search for a replacement, or at least a decent sewing machine, leads to a long night of clubbing, drinking, coke snorting, vomiting and hooking up, complicated by various run-ins with three party-hearty groomsmen. Naturally they all wind up paired off at one point or another: Regan and handsome Trevor (James Marsden) exchange competitive banter; Katie treats shy, smitten Joe (Kyle Bornheimer) like a doormat; and Gena has a score to settle with Clyde (Adam Scott), the ex-b.f. who ruined her life years ago.
For much of the early going, the three ideally cast leads are in top form. Dunst is expertly imperious as the glowering queen bee no one dares to cross; Caplan aces an astoundingly detailed monologue on fellatio (retained from the play). Perhaps most impressively, Fisher, a proven comic firecracker in past pics like “Wedding Crashers,” wrings endless variations on her character’s one-note stupidity; she strikes up a nice chemistry with Bornheimer, whose likable sad sack is easily the most appealing of the male supports.
But the proceedings start to grate pretty quickly, particularly when the pic tames its sense of humor and tries to highlight the values of solidarity supposedly at the core of this slutty sisterhood. Holding your girlfriend’s head over the toilet while she retches up her last five drinks is admirable, no doubt, but “Bachelorette” is pretty full of it, and its underlying m.o. — asking the viewer to laugh at, pity, envy and finally respect its utterly unrepentant characters — is problematic if not downright toxic. The only thing these goddesses seem to have in common is a penchant for promiscuity, substance abuse, bulimia and incessantly screechy, snotty behavior, which are good for easy laughs but pretty sorry grounds for lasting friendship, however much the pic tries to convince otherwise.
The film is slickly, professionally mounted from top to bottom, with special kudos due costume designer Anna Bingemann’s bridal regalia and Richard Hoover’s elegant production design. Among other things, Headland’s script doubles as a veritable time capsule of ’80s and ’90s pop-cultural touchstones, with throwaway references to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “My Girl” and “My So-Called Life.”